Short Fiction Contest Winners
First, let me congratulate all of you kitchen-table fiction writers out there. Because this was by far the best cache of short stories we've gotten for our annual contest. It was also the biggest. We received well in excess of 100 entries, each submission better than the last. But we couldn't help noticing is that almost none of you stuck to our 500 word maximum. You alternative types, I tell you. You don't play by anyone's rules. We let it slide this time, because your work was so good, but next year we won't be so soft on you.
Now, on to the winners. Fourth Prize--two passes to the Guild Theatre and a couple Alibi t-shirts--goes to Steven Robert Allen, for not only being one of the few who did stick to the word count, but for doing so with a funny, spiteful reductiveness that we just couldn't resist. Third Prize was claimed by Andrew Tully, for his fiction-memoir that was so full of gripping imagery. He gets a $20 gift certificate from Borders and a classy Alibi t-shirt for his trouble. Second Prize--a $20 gift certificate from Bound to Be Read and an Alibi shirt--goes to José Esquinas, for his equally gritty story of violent fate. And finally, Jesse Dollar Emerick gets the First Prize package of a $30 gift certificate from Page One, two passes to the Guild Theatre and an Alibi shirt for an elegant piece of prose-memory, at once photographic and dream-like. Congratulations to our winners and to all of you who put your time and talent into our most popular contest yet. And special thanks to our sponsors for providing the prizes that you've earned. Now read, enjoy and remember: The haiku contest is only three months away!
There is a photo of Uncle Ted taken maybe a minute before he took two steps backwards on a flimsy wooden pier and fell into Pine Lake, Wisconsin. It was October 1978. It's a strange picture really: My brother Paul has already started to walk away, making a blur in the lower right-hand corner; behind that, you can just make out a tuft of my hair and the tip of my right ear. Next to me is Ted, front and center, erect and smiling his broad muppet smile, looking almost goofy with his black beard and droopy hat. The clouds are steel grey, and Ted's hunting vest is glowing a hot, hot orange. Everything else is a bit murky--like Wisconsin lake water, which is a rich substance. It leaves a slightly tangy taste on the lips, as if it were fortified with vitamins and minerals, not to mention the thick pea-green quality. I say quality because it's more than just a color, it's a consistency--like soup. And no sooner did my mom put down the camera, me and Paul scrambling toward the beach, than Ted took a few casual steps backwards and disappeared with a brothy splash. I remember turning just in time to see two hands and a puff of blaze orange rising from the water.
I would like to say that at this point it started to rain, hard, just as Ted emerged; my mom, beside herself of course, on the edge of the pier gasping, "I thought you had drowned!" Rain that drenched us all as we walked up the sandy trail past Bible campers in the woods circled around a campfire, singing: "Lord, I want to know you better." Uncle Ted was pinched up, hands clutching elbows, teeth chattering, his droopy hat plastered around his ears. I want to say that's the way it happened. At least that's how I remember it: heavens opening at just the right moment for dramatic effect. Like the picture though, my memory is dim and hard to make out. Perhaps it didn't rain at all.
It was raining in Baltimore, circa '76, when we drove the brick lined streets to the harbor. We were there for the weekend, and it rained the entire time. I remember grey skies; a grey foamy ocean met by rust colored bricks--this all snatched in glances behind windshield wipers as we drove past, slowly, but didn't stop. Out in the bay tethered sailboats bounced in the mist and the wind. We were visiting Ted. He's not really my uncle, just my mom's cousin, but my family's close and they keep in touch. It was the only time we ever visited his house and strangely, I don't remember him there. I don't have clear images of anyone come to think of it. I was there with my whole family but I don't recall any faces, just a few small glimpses of color and time. It's hard to know for sure if the visit even occurred--there are no pictures. But I remember the drive. I remember standing in the garage as Ted's daughter (my second cousin) took off her clothes and ran outside in the rain. Just a pink bareness--strangely, shockingly bare--against the grey driveway out in the drizzle. And she was giggling; bubbling and squeaking behind the steady patter of light rain, hair sticking to her cheeks. And me woozy in dreamy weirdness. But abruptly an adult appeared, faceless, large and looming, chased after her and dragged her firmly by the hand back inside. Maybe it was Uncle Ted.
Around Christmastime we received a picture of him and his family--this was maybe '91 or '92. His daughter was going to Brown. She was 21 in the photo; long, sandy hair, Colgate smile, turquoise pull-over and a gold necklace. I held the picture in my hand for a moment and thought of the small naked body running out into the rain. I was looking into the eyes of somebody else; a young woman I had never met. A strange stranger.
Eventually, the photo was stuffed with the others into the basket on the kitchen counter. Later on it disappeared. .
Dateline: New Mexico--A transient killed another in an argument over which of the two men had led the harder life.
"Odds & Ends," Albuquerque Weekly Alibi
"This dude Red?" said the man, taking a pull on the 40 oz. "He wasted this other dude in an argument over whose life had been more of a bummer. It was in the Alibi. Red made the Alibi!"
"So who won the argument?" said the woman.
"Well, Red, I guess! He's still alive, and the other dude's out of his misery."
"Red's an asshole," said the woman. She poked at the scorched cans plunged deep in the ash of the fire. "You know how he got gooch-eyed? He chunked a whole can of Pabst, unopened can, in the fire. Sat there checking it out until it exploded. That's one of his life's tragedies. What a shit-for-brains."
"Red's okay," said the man.
"Now when he gets out of the joint, he's going to be, 'I've really had a rough life. I did a nickel in the joint for manslaughter.' You'll never hear the end of it. And the thing of it is, he'll even tell you the truth of how it happened: a dumb-ass argument with a dude over whose life was hardest. What a big-time loser."
The cottonwood twigs popped in the fire and the wet bark curled and smoked yellow. The man gave her a white-eyed look as he tilted his head back and took a hit from the 40 oz. He wiped his mouth, then peeled a strip of matted cottonwood cotton from the ground and laid it over the fire, where it burst into fierce, many-colored flame.
"Don't burn my mattress," said the woman.
The cottonwoods stretched for miles along the river's edge. Through the trees came ghostly images from a drive-in slasher movie on the other side of I-25. Tires slapped against the cracks in the bridge downstream.
"Everything about Red's what you call a self-fulfilling prophecy," said the woman. "You know what that means? That means when you make come true what you said was gonna come true."
"I know what it means," said the man.
"Like you say life's a bitch, so you make sure it is."
"Life's a bitch, then you die."
"You make your bed, so you get to lie in it," she said.
He peeled another strip of cotton from the ground and balled it up and tossed it on the fire.
"Leave it be, I told you!"
"Life's nuttin but a bunch of jail cells, one inside the other, you ever notice that?" he said, staring out at the silent screen. "You step out of one right into another. And as long as you're alive, you'll never get to step out of the prison of your own brain."
"Speak for your own sorry-ass self. I'm free, man. I'm a winner."
The man laughed dryly. "You think you are, because you think you're smarter than everybody else. But you're in maximum, bitch. Maximum fuckin' security." He tossed the empty bottle into the coals. The killer clawed the drive-in screen.
"Speak for yourself," she said again, and turned her back on him. "Loser."
He picked up a rock from the fire ring. It was hot as brimstone.
"Set you free," he said, as the rock came smashing down. .
I can recall riding along in my father's gas guzzler, a rusted out, black tank of an old Lincoln Mark V, a beast of an excuse for an automobile, which fortunately is no longer made, but unfortunately is still street legal in most states. My mother was in the passenger seat, looking nervous as she patted her head, trying to balance the blonde beehive while she squawked directions across the plush tan vinyl interior at my father, who was driving and chain smoking all the way to church or the liquor store, I can't remember which; but then somedays they were one in the same.
My sister and I were kicking and cussing, pinching each other and pulling each other's hair in the back seat. My father, between chimney puffs and behind Foster Grants, which he wore because he thought he was Jim Rockford, was cursing and complaining that we were always late to church. His left hand was on the wheel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, as his right hand turned the knob on the radio to search for the football game. His fingers were pressed on the side and his arm rested on the unrolled window, which, despite my sister and I hacking and gagging in the backseat, he refused to open more than a crack, believing that he was the boss and we were to be seen and not heard, as if we were lucky to be in this oversized, smoke infested disaster waiting to happen. Refusing to be upstaged and too jealous to resist, mom would light up.
He smoked menthols which spun strands of blue smoke, and she smoked unfiltered cigarettes with that stupid slogan, "By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen." God save the queen ... After maybe fifteen minutes of my sister's and my lungs filling up with our parents' smoke, my father had decided we learned our lesson, so he'd eye me in the rear view mirror begging for mercy and a breath of fresh air, he'd grin and give me the finger, jerk his head to his left, depress his automatic window button and flick his butt out the window with the middle finger and thumb of his right hand. Then he would close the window, cutting off the sudden gust of wind from outside and sealing us back up in the smoking car. The entire action took seven seconds at the most. I would lean my head upside down and look out the window, watching the tiny butt whirl away down the highway behind us. "The world is your ashtray," my father would announce, lighting up again and laughing.
A few minutes later I'd be unconscious, my head wedged upside down and my nose pressed against the glass and my neck crimped between my shoulder blades, snoring into the window. Once we got to church, it took my mother and my sister to remove me from the rear windshield. My father never helped--he was always too busy hacking away and cramming breath mints into his mouth. .
I. Once, I popped from a womb, guns blazing, itching for a fight, but the air didn't suit me. I choked a little, and a preschool teacher, taking advantage of my confusion, ambushed me, disarmed me, grabbed me by the nape of the neck and threw me into a pen with some others. Nurtured from that moment on a steady diet of crayons and paste, I soon lost my criminal instincts and learned how to play nicely. My equilibrium, though, was abruptly dismantled by my sensation one day of the evasive softness of girls. I didn't get an education. I was moved to idiocy. I could not speak. I adored the prettiest to the threshold of psychosis. The pain of repeated rejections made it difficult to live, but over time I learned to be callous and that, my friends, is when I met my wife.
II. True, I flooded her with unconditional love for 40 days and 40 nights, but the clouds soon lifted, and I then loved her only on the condition that she remain slim and beautiful. As she slowly became fat and ugly, I loved her less and less until one day I was wholly indifferent. We had three daughters: one got good grades, another smoked marijuana, the third joined a satanic cult in California. I developed a career in fertilizer. The hours depressed me. I daydreamed about quitting, but I was worried about making the payments on our house. We had a dog named Marla. I watched sporting events on television. I told my wife repeatedly that I was tired of eating the same bland meals over and over again.
III. Then, the plush days of marriage ended when my wife died at the age of 56 of unknown causes. I was not alarmed. I didn't cry at the funeral, but afterward I missed her, because the house was empty, and Marla was too old to play fetch-the-stick. I wished then that I had known my wife. I didn't even know that she had loved birds. I had no idea. My daughter (the one who got good grades) read a long poem about birds at the funeral. I never knew anything about it.
IV. At the end, my back curved, my hair fell to the floor, and my joints refused to bend. I got disoriented. I didn't remember myself. There wasn't anyone except my daughter (the one who got good grades), and she never cared much for me. One day I clutched my heart, fell to the ground, and quickly became a garden of mushrooms. I wished much. The words went by quick: it seemed like yesterday that I was typing word number eight. Then, before I knew it, it was word number 453, and I had just a mere handful left to go. I didn't know what to say, and I suspected there wasn't anything to say, so I let go of the thread, and dropped down to who knows where or what and, at last, succeeded in feeling nothing. .
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